A Landslide Victory in

What Makes an Election Victory a Landslide in Politics

Ronald Reagan Campaigns in 1984
Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential victory is considered to be a landslide. Dirck Halstead / Getty Images Contributor

A landslide victory in politics is any election in which the victor wins by an overwhelming margin. The term became popular in the 1800s to define a "resounding victory; one in which the opposition is buried" in an election, according to the late New York Times political writer William Safire in his Safire's Political Dictionary.

While many elections are declared landslide victories, they are trickier to quantify.

How big is a "resounding victory?" Is there a certain margin of victory that qualifies as a landslide election? How many electoral votes do you have to win to achieve a landslide? It turns out there is no consensus on the specifics of a landslide definition. But there is general agreement among political observers about historic presidential elections that qualify as such.

Landslide Examples

There are at least half a dozen presidential elections that many would consider being landslides. Among them is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1936 win over Alf Landon. Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes to Landon's eight, and 61 percent of the popular vote to his opponent's 37 percent. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 525 electoral votes to Walter Mondale's 13, capturing 59 percent of the popular vote.

Neither of President Barack Obama's victories, in 2008 or 2012, are considered to be landslides. Nor is President Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump won the electoral vote but received 1 million fewer actual votes than Clinton did, reigniting the debate over whether the U.S. should scrap the Electoral College.

Defining a Landslide Victory

There is no legal or constitutional definition of what a landslide election is, or how wide an electoral victory margin must be in order for a candidate to have won in a landslide.

But many modern-day political commentators and media pundits use the term landslide election freely to describe campaigns in which the victor was a clear favorite during the campaign and goes on to win with relative ease.

"It usually means exceeding expectations and being somewhat overwhelming," Gerald Hill, a political scientist and co-author of The Facts on File Dictionary of American Politics, told The Associated Press.

One generally agreed upon measure of a landslide election is when the winning candidate beats his opponent or opponents by at least 15 percentage points in a popular vote count. Under that scenario a landslide would occur when the winning candidate in a two-way election receives 58 percent of the vote, leaving his opponent with 42 percent.

There are variations of the 15-point landslide definition. The online political news source Politico has defined a landslide election as being on in which the winning candidate beats his opponent by at least 10 percentage points, for example. And the well-known political blogger Nate Silver, of The New York Times, has defined a landslide district as being one in which a presidential vote margin deviated by at least 20 percentage points from the national result.

Political scientists Hill and Kathleen Thompson Hill and say a landslide occurs when a candidate is able to win 60 percent of the popular vote.

Electoral College Landslide

Of course, the United States does not elect its presidents by popular vote. It instead uses the Electoral College system. There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs in a presidential race, so how many would a candidate have to win to achieve a landslide?

Again, there is no legal or constitutional definition of a landslide in a presidential election. But political journalists have offered their own suggested guidelines for determining a landslide victory over the years. One generally agreed upon definition of an Electoral College landslide is a presidential election in which the winning candidate secures at least 375 or 70 percent of the electoral votes.